Students and professors from the University of Montana learn about how people are dealing with life and livelihoods under dynamic conditions

A Drowning Rice Bowl

January 4, 2011

Story By Kevin Radley

Photos By Kevin Radley

The developing countries that depend on southern Vietnam’s inexpensive rice exports could face starvation with the onset of rising sea levels. The low-lying landscape of Vietnam’s ‘rice bowl’, the Mekong Delta, will likely only be able to produce rice for domestic consumption under predicted climate change impacts, a global concern considering the country’s worldwide rice exports.

Many of our guest professors have discussed this potential global issue, including our most recent lecturer Dr. Nguyen Van Be, a professor in the Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Management at Vietnam’s Can Tho University.

Vietnam became the leading producer and exporter of rice for the world in 2010, overcoming its usual competitor Thailand, according to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). The country produced close to 38 million tonnes of rice––roughly half of which was grown in the Mekong Delta.

Dr. Be said, the Delta produces a lower quality of rice than countries like Thailand and India. He emphasized that this lower quality–and therefore lower costing–product allows Vietnam to export around 6 million tones of cheap rice to a niche market of underdeveloped countries around the world. Unfortunately, 90% of those rice exports from Vietnam are cultivated in the Mekong Delta, which sits only two meters above sea level.

Thus southern Vietnam’s vertically challenged countryside is resting in a conflict of interest. There is scientific consensus that by the end of the century sea levels will rise about one meter. With more saltwater inland, soils will become increasingly saline, which in turn, will drastically reduce rice yields in the delta.

This could change the entire hydrology of the Mekong Delta affecting not only the area’s 18 million Vietnamese people and their livelihoods but also reducing Vietnam’s cheap rice export creating a global food shortage.

Adverse weather conditions ranging from drought to flooding are not ideal for cultivating rice either. Ironically, rice is a crop that grows in ample amounts of water but cannot survive if submerged for a long period. Coastal areas, like the Mekong Delta, are predicted to have an increased intensity of tropical storms, which could flood the “rice bowl” and possibly drown most of the current production.

As seawater creeps further inland, increasing the salinity of arable land every year and limiting fresh water resources, Vietnamese rice farmers are forced to look for alternative growing techniques or a new livelihood. Rather than growing rice, some farmers channel their land into saltwater ponds for shrimp cultivation. The result is larger profits and greater viability given the conditions.

Yet, shrimp farming may not be the sustainable answer the Delta needs. Given the amount of excess carbon in our atmosphere it is predicted that the pH of our oceans will to continue to decline through acidification. Producing healthy shrimp requires saltwater with a relative high pH to regulate the spread of disease and pests. A lower pH can weaken the shrimp’s exoskeleton decreasing their immunity to disease.

Dr. Be said rice farmers might also be able to adapt with the consequences of saltwater intrusion with new rice varieties IRRI is currently researching. As of now, one variety of rice is able to grow in brackish waters of 6 parts per thousand while another variety is able to grow submerged in fresh water for up to 20 days.  The IRRI hopes to blend these two varieties creating a single saltwater and flood tolerant rice to help the delta’s rice farmers maintain production and adapt to climate change in a sustainable manner.

Another solution for Vietnam’s future is to stop the saltwater altogether. A proposal backed by many politicians is to build a 700 km U-shaped dike that stretches from the southern-most provinces on the east sea of Vietnam to just south of Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam must now weigh and decide what options are best for the future in a changing climate.

A massive dike will create new jobs, much needed infrastructure and probably maintain the majority of rice production but it may also cost Vietnam the already decreasing natural environment and the safety of the vulnerable people living in the delta.

Whatever the country’s decision, rice should continue to be the staple of Vietnam and the heart of its agricultural and food processing economy.  The crop is not just a segment of the Vietnamese diet and GDP, it is deeply inserted in the cultural values of the growing 88 million people living here.

One response

  1. sea levels will rise. we cannot stop it. what we can do is adapt and encourage our crops to adapt as well. rice that thrives in brackish water is the best way to evolve with the changing tides of our planet. it may taste or look different, but that is the beauty of evolution; every evolving foodstuffs to nourish us in harmony with the planet.

    December 4, 2011 at 8:19 pm

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